The ἰδιώτης’s Guide to Greek Drama

greektheaterdionysiswowIf entertainment had a great great (lots more greats) grandmother, she’d be wearing a chiton instead of a sweater and feeding you samali instead of cookies, because that grandmother would be the Greek Drama. The shows that started them all. All your favorite movies, television shows, and stage productions owe a huge debt of gratitude to ancient Greek men in big dresses, Elton John shoes and creepy masks. It sounds goofy, but really, Greek Dramas were and remain some of the most sophisticated contributions to Western literature and entertainment which we still possess. With their finely crafted stories, characters and language, Greek Dramas could be the poster children for the phrase “Oldies, but Goodies”. Of course, one can easily pick up a book of Aeschylus or Aristophanes and simply enjoy, but it’s always more fun to understand the background of a thing before digging into it. So let’s begin…

Greek Dramas, as far as we know, started being written in about the 6th century BC, making them some of the oldest works still regularly enjoyed today. The very oldest surviving of these is “The Persians”  by Aeschylus, composed and performed in 472 BC. In the beginning, these dramas were only tragedies, but eventually, comedies came into practice as well. They were usually composed for competitions held at religious festivals to honor the gods. The winners of the competitions would often receive a laurel wreath, a symbol of Apollo that represents one of the greatest honors a Greek could attain.


A Greek Chorus. Not creepy at all.

The plays featured very few characters; at first, only one. However, the character/s were always accompanied by a Chorus. The Chorus was a small to large group of people who acted as a single entity (occasionally with a leader) and were responsible for providing perspective and commentary on the actions for the audience, usually in a poetic and dramatic way. As time went on, the more daring and innovative playwrights included two or even three characters and had the Chorus actually interact with the actors, turning it into a sort of character of its own.


Statue of an ancient Greek actor. Please notice the disco shoes.

All the characters wore the now famous theater masks. Unlike the simplified versions we use for decoration today, Greek theater masks were extremely decorative, colorful and ingeniously designed so that the open mouth functioned like a sort of megaphone, allowing the actor to be heard more easily. The actors also wore long robes, made in bright colors and enormous shoes that would put Lady Gaga to shame. All of the big masks, robes, and shoes were there to make the actors larger than life and therefore visible to even the spectators in the top seats. And not only their appearances, but their movements and voices had to be hugely exaggerated. To make things even louder (and cooler), it is believed that the plays were actually closer to being chanted than spoken, which would have made the words resonate more in the theater. No doubt, if we saw such performances today, we would think the actors insufferable hams, but that’s was what had to be done in those days.  Unsurprisingly, actors in Ancient Greece were all male regardless of the gender of the character portrayed. But to be honest, one would hardly be able to tell what they were anyway with the distance and the elaborate gear.



Greek theater composed of theatron, orchestra and skene.

Plays were performed in large outdoor theaters mathematically designed for maximum acoustic amplification. These theaters were separated into three main parts: the theatron, the orchestra and the skene. The Theatron was the seating area, where the spectators (almost definitely men-only) watched the play. The Orchestra was a circular or semicircular area where the chorus was located and where they would often perform dancing and musical interludes while the actors prepared for the next scene. The Skene was an enormous set usually made to look like a building and before which the action took place. Skenes were made in such a way that natural looking exits and entrances could be made through built in doors and archways. These sets were plain at first, but became more elaborate and decorated as time went on.


Oedipus and the Sphinx

But with all this grandeur, it was the plays themselves were of course the real reasons for being there. The tragedies were intellectual, philosophical pieces with masterful writing and drama. The comedies, on the other hand, were filled with bawdy and irreverent humor that might be considered both hilarious and vulgar even by today’s standards. The most celebrated of the tragedians were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, who all won numerous competitions and were beloved by the public. The comedic scene, meanwhile, was dominated by Aristophanes and Menander, the former being far more famous than the latter. Plays by all of these playwrights were celebrated in Greece for centuries and are still popular today all over the world. The most famous of their works include Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea and Aristophanes’ The Frogs. 

Greek influence on modern entertainment is everywhere, especially in dramatic terminology. We draw many words related to entertainment from Greek. The words protagonist and antagonist come from the Greek meaning the first actor and ‘rival’ respectively. ‘Parade’ comes from the word parados, which referred to the marching or dancing entrance of the Chorus onto the stage. ‘Theater’ obviously came from theatron , and the word skene developed into ‘scene’. Interestingly, our word ‘obscene’ is believed to come from the Greek phrase ob skene, translated as ‘off stage‘. Ob skene referred to the rule of Greek theater that any violent or offensive parts of the play must not be performed on stage but instead be described to the audience by a character. For instance, murder and suicide were ob skene events and would happen only offstage. This is why in Oedipus the King, for example, Jocasta leaves the stage to kill herself and her death is reported by a messenger instead.


On the right is that face you make when your play survives for 2,000 years.

Sadly, countless numbers of plays were lost in time. In fact, most plays not by the playwrights I mentioned above (and many of theirs as well) are gone forever. But their legacy and influence on modern entertainment remains, and those plays which have been preserved are marvelous testament to the civilization and sophistication of ancient Greek society. For while their plays are magnificent, they are only one piece of the enormous inheritance which Western Culture received from the Greek people.


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